FAA, ATC Union Disagree on Staffing Needs

The nation's air traffic controllers are turning gray.

More than 25 percent of them will reach retirement age by the end of next year. And union officials fear their replacements cannot be adequately trained in time, putting the flying public at risk.

The Federal Aviation Administration insists replacements will be ready when needed.

"We are re-examining the controller work force structure," said Geoffrey Basye, FAA deputy administrator for communications. "I cannot discuss changes in the work force numbers that are coming. We will . . . bring on the number necessary."

Those in the present generation of controllers - hired after President Reagan fired about 11,000 striking workers in 1981 - are approaching their 50s. Ironically, the FAA counts almost 500 of the controllers fired in 1981 as possible replacements for the retiring controllers.

Controllers are eligible to retire at 50 or after serving 25 years. They face mandatory retirement at 56.

The average, base salary of an air traffic controller is $113,600. Retirement pay is based on the highest salary in the final three years before retirement.

There are two retirement systems, depending on when the controller joined the FAA.

Most controllers (about 75 percent) would retire under the Federal Employee Retirement System. A 53-year-old controller with 20 years of service would receive $40,800 a year.

Controllers under the civil service retirement system are older and have more years of service. Under that system, a 50-year-old controller with 30 years of service would retire at $68,625 a year.

By the end of 2007, 3,769 of the country's 14,736 air traffic controllers will be eligible for retirement.

Locally, 50 controllers from the 440-member staff at the Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center in Oberlin could retire by December, and 43 more by the end of 2007. At Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, 10 of the 60 tower controllers will be eligible by the end of this year and 11 more by the end of 2007.

Even at 440, the staff at Oberlin is 30 people short of the number of controllers agreed to in the workers' contract with the FAA. Hopkins is operating with 60 positions instead of the authorized 67.

Nationally, the FAA estimates that 7,540 controllers could retire by 2011. That's more than half the current work force. And the number could reach 8,549 by 2012.

By adding the number of controllers expected to be lost through death, illness, resignation and promotion, the anticipated 3,769 eligible for retirement in 2007 could increase to:

4,578 in 2007.

10,728 in 2012.

FAA spokesmen insist they are on track to replace the retirees.

Jay Aul, the FAA's human-resources manager for controller operations support, said the administration will have all the replacements it needs to handle the retirements even considering three to five years of training.

"We have a pool of applicants we can draw on," Aul said. "There are 1,300 military controllers who want to come over; 800 to 900 people in our college training programs; 300 people we reached through our job fairs; and about 500 former PATCO controllers."

He declined to get into specifics about the age factor of the former Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization controllers, but he noted that many are still in their 50s and could be retrained.

A spokesman for the FAA said the applicant pool is more than 3,700 people, though he acknowledged that not all would still be interested or would pass the rigorous testing.

"Still, applicants are not a problem. We are turning them away," said Basye.

But union officials argue that if the FAA underestimates the number of retirees, the agency will be short-handed because it takes three to five years for someone to become a full-performance controller.

The FAA says it can cut that training to two to three years. The union says that figure is not realistic.

"There are no shortcuts to training," said Pat Forrey, vice president of the Great Lakes Region of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. "Too many lives are at stake if a controller makes an error."

FAA spokesmen reject the notion that people who are eligible to retire will leave. Of the 3,769 eligible to retire in 2007, the FAA believes only 1,097 will.

"We did a study in the early 2000s that showed that most of the [eligible] controllers waited an average of five years before retiring," FAA's Basye said. "When you look at the money they make, why would they retire? I hate to use the words 'scare tactics,' but that is what the union is doing."

Doug Church, National Air Traffic Controllers Association spokesman, said fewer controllers retired around 2000 because they had signed a good contract in 1998. Since retirement pay is based on the highest three years of salary, it was natural that they would stay on the job.

"Look, we have no way of knowing how many people will retire," said Church. "But we do know how many could. Is it smart for the FAA to just sit around and hope that those who can retire will not? Isn't it smarter to prepare for the retirements?"

The FAA and the union are in contract talks now. The contract being negotiated offers a lower pay scale to new controllers - up to 30 percent less - depending on location.

The FAA says the proposal is fair and an improvement. NATCA says that it is not and that its enactment will encourage early retirement.

The two sides have reached an impasse.

Under federal regulations, the FAA's last offer goes into effect until 2010 unless Congress steps in by June 5 and orders the agency to resume negotiations.

Both the FAA and the union agree that a large number of controllers will disappear over the next six years.

The Oberlin Center is the second-busiest in the world; it controls about 3 million aircraft a year flying over portions of Ohio, Michigan, New York, Canada, West Virginia, Indiana and Maryland.

"There is almost no one being trained to replace them," said Forrey. "We have 50 people that we expect to retire at the end of the year. If they do, this could have a dramatic effect on air traffic control and open the door to an air disaster."

FAA officials insist that replacement of the aging controller work force is not a concern. A 2004 plan called for the hiring of 1,200 controllers a year through 2014. The actual hirings have fallen short.

Most controllers start the training process with three months at the FAA's Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City. That is followed by up to five years of training at an air traffic control facility.

Basye said the number of academy graduates was 123 in the fiscal year ending 2004; 305 in 2005; and 511 so far for the fiscal year that ends in October.

He said that about 80 percent of those the FAA hires attend initial training at the FAA academy. The rest have had experience in military aircraft control or private industry.

"The real training doesn't begin until after they are assigned to a center [or an airport tower] where they are taught by controllers," said Forrey. "It's on-the-job training, as we call it, training by fire."

"This is a very serious job with no room for error - none," he added.

"It's difficult and high-stress. If we make a mistake, people die. We can't make mistakes."

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